Interview: This Is Not A Toy Co-Curator John Wee Tom Reveals All You Need to Know About The Exhibit

Collectors, spectators and anyone intrigued by the modern art of figurines and collectible sculptures should know about the This Is Not A Toy exhibit in Toronto. In addition to being co-curated by music guru Pharrell Williams, the three-month showcase features some of the best pieces from famed artists, including KAWS, Takashi Murakami and Huck Gee. Although it’s solely on display at Canada’s Design Museum, Design Exchange, there’s still a way to find out everything you want to know about the eclectic art show, and we got the main man behind it to fill you guys in on it all.

For the remainder of this article, get to know entrepreneur, collector and independent Toronto-based curator John Wee Tom. From commissioning a one-off series of designer toys with Huck Gee to working closely with Pharrell on This Is Not A Toy, he’s definitely the right guy to grill on the matter at hand. Could collectible toys be the future of the art world in 10 or maybe even 20 years? John speaks on that, plus an inside report of Skateboy P’s decked out crib of figurines, and so much more in our official sit-down with this art expert.

Let’s get everyone acquainted with who you are as a businessman and your position at the museum.
I’m actually not with the museum. I’m an independent curator. I am a businessman, though, with a couple of companies. One of my companies plans corporate incentives and meetings like high-end event planning. I’m also part of a small development firm that owns the Templar Hotel in Toronto, the only high-design boutique hotel in the city.

How I became involved with the This Is Not A Toy exhibition was through Shauna Levy, President of the Design Exchange. I’ve known her for a number of years, and when she assumed the presidency a couple of years ago one of her mandates was to include cultural programming that was much more accessible and open to the general public. Being that this is Canada’s Design Museum, and urban vinyl is the perfect crossover between art and design, and cross-pollinates a bunch of disciplines like street art, graffiti and sneaker culture, I thought it be the perfect vehicle for DX to launch this new level of programming.

Where did you come up with the name This Is Not a Toy?
Funny enough, the name was actually thought of by my wife. As we were coming up with the concept of the show, mainly the name of the whole thing, she said, “Well, what about This Is Not A Toy?’” After I asked her to break it down, she elaborated by saying, “You know, it’s that classic disclaimer we see on packaging for items not made for kids, including toys.” Why that notion is particularly interesting is because urban vinyl designer toys on the surface have a really cute and attractive look, but the meanings behind them have a very subversive aspect to them. It really spoke to the idea that even though they look like toys, they’re not really toys. If anything, they’re toys of the mind. They’re little sculptures that have all these other meanings behind them.

When you think about it even further, there’s also that famous painting of the pipe, “Ceci N'est Pas Une Pipe,” which translates to “this is not a pipe.” That’s what the caption says, but obviously it’s a painting of a pipe. It really talks about the whole idea of context and meaning in art. It references Dadaism, Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. All of these meanings come from the title This Is Not A Toy.

Where did collecting originate for you?
I still remember the first time I ever saw a designer toy, or urban vinyl piece. It was the early 2000s, and I was strolling through Toronto on Queen Street, which is New York City’s answer to SoHo or Lower East Side. I noticed the sign on the sidewalk advertising a shop called Magic Pony. As I went upstairs and went in, what I saw kind of just blew my mind. There were these objects, these little things that I never knew existed. It made me even wonder how they could exist. It was such a cool concept. One of the first things I remember seeing was Bill McMullen’s AD-AT Walker. It’s a mashup piece between an adidas shell toe Superstar shoe from back in the day and an AD-AT Walker from Empire Strikes Back. It was two of the coolest things I could think of, and here they were represented in one object. How could that even come out of somebody’s head? [Laughs] That alone kind of represented the whole movement for me. All of these really cool conceptual toys that have come out of an artist’s imagination were here in three-dimensions and as a product that someone could actually buy and collect. From then on, I was hooked. I eventually got into Eric So, Michael Lau, Huck Gee, and all of these other artists. The more I looked into it, the more I found it interesting. They all come from different influences, and different creative roots. For me, that was really fascinating.

We actually have the McMullen piece in the show. It’s been 10 years since that piece was launched, and so Bill McMullen made a one-off 10-foot tall piece of the exact same one for the show. It’s this amazing sculpture that sits in the middle of the show. He drove it up from San Diego and installed it himself. He missed the shipping date, but we wanted it so badly that he rented a truck and got it to us in time.

In your opinion, who makes the best figurines out there?
You know, that’s a really loaded question! [Laughs] I can name a few off the top of my head, though. The godfather of urban vinyl, as far as I’m concerned, is Michael Lau. He’s the one that started the whole movement really. Back in 1997, he deconstructed G.I. Joe’s to make these really cool figures from his own existence amongst hip-hop artists, graffiti artists, and street fashion. At the same time, Eric So did the same thing with G.I. Joe’s except he made Bruce Lee figures. Both of those guys, for me, are OGs and I love the work they do. For collectors, anything they make is considered a Holy Grail. KAWS, of course, is in there as well. He was one of the early guys who got into figures with his Companion, Chum and Accomplice figures. To this day, he’s still making the dopest figures out there.

KAWS is really an important artist in our show because he straddles the world between toy art and fine art. He’s equally successful in both worlds. One of the themes behind the show is that these toys are accessible art. For many people, they’re a gateway into the art world and the wider body of work of some of these artists. Huck Gee is also one the greatest toy artists out there. He has a huge following, including me. I have a number of his figures in my collection. His subject matter is always of interest, especially to anybody that’s into samurais and ninjas. Another favorite of mine is coarse, a company built by these two artists from Germany working out of L.A. They make these very polished, amazing figures. Their sculpts are amazing, the concepts are really crazy, and are just really on the upswing as far as toy art and fine art goes. Also, their packaging is insane. You also have got to consider some old school heads like Futura, McMullen and Ron English. In the new school, you got Chauskoskis, a toy artist from Mexico. Even though we don’t have any pieces in the show from him, he’s a really cool artist. Kevin Gosselin is another great artist. Cool Rain and Fool’s Paradise are two artists from Asia that are really doing some cool things. There’s a piece in the show from both of them.

What’s one of your most prized collectible figurines?
I did a commission a couple of years ago by Huck Gee, which was a series of one-off figures. There’s only one set of them, and I call it The Huck Gee Project. Those pieces are in the show. For example, he did a set of the Seven Samurai from the famous Akira Kurosawa movie that inspired The Magnificent Seven. It’s one of the greatest movies of all time — one that Quentin Tarantino always says is his favorite movie. I commissioned Huck Gee to do the Seven Samurai for me. He recreated each of the characters, complete with hand-sewn and hand-painted kimonos and stainless steel swords. They’re just an amazing set of figures, down to the last detail. In the same project, there’s the Rhino Poacher, Sushi Chef, and a whole lot of figures included. That would have to be among my most prized pieces. I did another commission piece from coarse that I called “The Butcher Of Ginza.” The idea behind that was Bill the Butcher from The Gangs of New York. I pictured this character who is a young kid and skateboarder by day, and works at a butcher shop at night. He’s trying to be a part of the Yakuza, so he has all these body tats all over him. I commissioned the artist to create the amazing tattoos with knives as his accessories. That piece is in the show as well.

Getting back to the This Is Not A Toy exhibit, it seems like Pharrell played a big part in curating. How involved was he in the entire process?
When we approached Pharrell early on in the project, Shauna Levy had already been introduced to his management team a couple of years ago. She always wanted to do something with him, but the timing was always off. He’s the hottest thing on the planet right now, so when I came on board I said to Shauna, “You realize that Pharrell is a collector, right?” She didn’t know he was. Sure enough, when we approached his management with the idea, they bought in right away. I’m not sure if you know, but Pharrell’s own introduction to art and the fine design world came through designer toys. Back in the early 2000s, he visited Japan and was introduced to Nigo. After seeing Nigo’s dope collection of designer toys, he was fascinated and started collecting those. Through Nigo, he met KAWS and a whole bunch of different artists. Even then, that’s when he started talking to KAWS about commissioning him to do some paintings. After he saw those Kimpsons paintings, he said, “I love SpongeBob. Can you do a SpongeBob painting for me?” At first, KAWS wasn’t really into that, but Pharrell’s persistence got him to do a series of SpongeBob paintings. Even to this day, it’s a recurring motif for KAWS. It’s the perfect example of how two creative forces can combine to create something really unique.

Pharrell did the “Simple Things” sculpture, which is in our show, with Murakami and Jacob The Jeweler. He’s just the perfect co-curator because he wears so many different hats — no pun intended with his new hat. [Laughs] He’s a writer, producer, performer, designer for Galerie Perrotin, and he has a clothing line. He’s like the renaissance man of our time. It’s no surprise that he would love something like designer toys or urban vinyl. It comes from so many different influences, and makes sense for him to be interested in this whole genre. He’s been completely generous with us, 100 percent helpful, and even was the one who introduced us to KAWS, Murakami, McMullen, Futura, and FriendsWithYou. A lot of the artists are in the show because Pharrell introduced them to us. He had a very strong hand in shaping how the show looks due to how he facilitated those introductions.

Do you have any idea of what his favorite toys might be?
He’s got a number of different pieces in the show from his collection. I, along with Shauna and my co-curator Sara Nickelson, was fortunate enough to be invited to Pharrell’s place back in December during Art Basel. We flew down and were hosted by Pharrell and his wife. That was right around the time that he told me about how the SpongeBob paintings with KAWS came about. While we were there, we loved so much of his collection that we started picking out pieces for the exhibit like the Beatles Kubricks, the Milo on Rocking Horse, and the Daft Punk Kubricks. Those three are some of his favorites that made it into the show. Two of the major paintings also made it: “KAWSBob 3” and  “KURFS Crowd.” All of those are close to his heart. It took some convincing, but luckily he was very generous with us and lent them to the show.

It’s been a blast. Pharrell and his manager Loic Villepontoux have been so incredible with us by helping us out and really wanting to see the show happen. I think it’s been so well received that a lot of people starting to come to the show are people that don’t normally come to museums. It’s opening the doors for urban vinyl and getting a lot of people engaged.

Is it hard getting people to understand the difference between a collectible and the average toy?
With these toys, one big difference is that they have some really sophisticated concepts behind them. Even from an art, design and aesthetic standpoint, they look very different than your average toy. Even a lot of people who you talk to, who have never seen these things before, will say, “I don’t know if I understand them, but I like them.” That’s their immediate reaction. They might not understand them, but they’re intrigued right away. That’s what separates toys like these from your average toy. Another big thing is that these are made in very limited edition. There may only be 20, 30 or 2,000 of a particular toy. For that reason alone, they become very collectible. Some toys might only be $30 or $40 when they come out, but they’ll become so coveted that they resell for $1,000 or $2,000. When you have an 8-year-old kid and a 50-year-old adult reacting in the same way to a toy, that says it all right there. You don’t have to have any education in art or design to appreciate it on some level.

In the next five to 10 years, do you see the toy market skyrocketing or becoming a cult classic?
Well, up until now it has been a sort of niche thing. However, when you have big collectors like Pharrell, Kanye West, Nike’s head guy Mark Parker, and guys like that seeing the worth and value, it says something for the movement. One of the purposes of this exhibition is to mark the first time the urban vinyl movement is looked upon in the context of a bona fide form of contemporary art within an institutional setting. We wanted to elevate the status of urban vinyl with this exhibition. I think once you have that museum recognition, other people start to take notice. We’ve already seen contemporary art collectors come into the museum, look at the exhibition, and then come to me saying, “We never knew anything about this before, but where can I buy this stuff. When you have a contemporary art collector that is 58-years-old and is looking at this new form of art that comes from youth culture, that’s a really cool thing. It speaks to the fact that it’s a relevant art form and will be an art form that grows. It’ll be interesting to see where it does go. I see it as a global phenomenon. For it to come from Asia into the west, it’s sparked new ideas from both regions. I’m hoping it’ll grow out of a niche market and explode into something bigger.

How big are we talking? Let’s think 20 years from now.
One of the things people naturally ask is if it’s really an art form. People were asking that same question 30 years ago about photography, due to the ability of producing it. I feel like the same thing is happening now with urban vinyl toys. Photography is now very much a bona fide and vital art form. Unfortunately, what happens is that people start talking notice when the value is at a high command. When a photograph hit $100,000 at an auction, that’s when people started paying attention to it. Now a photograph could sell for $1 million. You’re kind of seeing that slightly in the urban vinyl world. An original Michael Lau Gardener figure from 1997, if you can find one, will run you about $50,000. KAWS figures, when they were first released, would cost about $1,000. Now they’re costing $35,000. That kind of action and growth in value is really starting to happen. From that standpoint, you’re definitely seeing an appreciation of the genre as a genuine art form. 20 years from now, I think with the dynamism behind it and the cross-pollination of influences, it’s only going to increase. You’ll start seeing the influence of video games in terms of urban vinyl, and vice versa. Huck Gee, who I mentioned earlier as one of the top vinyl artists, is in the midst of developing his own video game with his own characters. The sky’s definitely the limit as far as 20 years from now. As far as what it might look like, I think 3D printing will make a huge impact on the urban vinyl scene. The cross-pollination with video art, online apps, and all those new technological advances will converge at some point and create new forms of media that we can’t conceive right now.

Who are some contemporary artists you can see getting into the urban vinyl scene?
Besides KAWS, who’s pretty much the central artist because he does both equally, Murakami is a contemporary artist in the top 10 who’s always had a toy practice. He’s one of these guys who make toys as one of his own art practices like plush toys, vinyl and all types of figures. Yoshitomo Nara is another contemporary artist who does toys, fine art and paintings. Misaki Kawai is in the show as well. She’s not as well known as the others, but she’s a contemporary artist that’s going the other way and starting to design a line of toys. FriendsWithYou, a duo out of L.A., started out with toys and are full out in the contemporary art world now. They don’t do toys so much now. A lot of these guys are moving into the fine arts lane like coarse. You’ll continuously have toy artists going into contemporary art, and in reverse have contemporary artists looking at the toy medium as a way to express their ideas. A lot of people will sit up and take notice of both ways.

How about a dream collab?
That’s the beauty of this genre. When you mash up some ideas that you’d never even think of, that becomes really exciting to me. Ashley Wood, who’s not in the show but has a huge following amongst collectors, has a company called 3A. They do all these really interesting robotic characters. They’ve been talking about him doing a collab with coarse. That would be really interesting. One of my own ideas for commission work would be with KAWS and some of the other artists in the show. He’s a very singular artist with his own vision, though. If I were to think of a really cool idea, I would love to see the artist tackle a medium they wouldn’t ordinarily do. For example, it would be cool to see Huck Gee, whose work reminds me of Fernando Botero, do a huge bronze or stone carving of one of his characters in a larger-than-life-sized scale. He’s done prints, but it would be great if he did some monumental paintings. When we were curating the show, we looked at a lot of these artists and their bodies of work, and saw their potential to springboard into something else outside of being known solely in the toy world. They all have the potential to be like KAWS, who started in graffiti, got into toys, then got into subway ads and painting, and now is doing 30-foot tall sculptures.

Earlier we talked about whether people even consider urban vinyl to be a form of art. How are you guys working towards making it properly fit into the grander scale of the art world?
The most important thing about this particular art form is the fact that it comes from youth culture. Because of that, it’s very relevant. Unlike painting or sculpture and all those more standardized art forms, this is an art form that’s of our age. It exists very well within the digital era. It’s born from the collector culture and from influences that matter to our youth. Since it comes from all these things that matter, it is a very relevant and meaningful art form. Not many are relevant on a contemporary scale. It really is an art form for the Instagram age. If you look at This Is Not A Toy, people are Instagramming shots from the exhibition all the time. It kind of goes hand in hand. That’s why I think it’s so important.